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St. Joseph: The Metis Capitol of North Dakota

St. Joseph (now known as Walhalla) was, at one time, the “Métis capitol of North Dakota”. The community is located in northern North Dakota, approximately 5 miles south of the US/Canadian border (aka. The Medicine Line).

During the early 1800s, the escarpment to the west of Pembina (know as the “Hair Hills”) became a preferred camping location for the Ojibwe and Métis people due to the protection that the tree cover and numerous draws and valleys offered. It soon became a popular place to rally before heading out onto the Great Plains to hunt buffalo, and many small cabins were eventually built there. By the 1820s, a small settlement started growing – especially after 1840 when trader Norman Kittson and Antoine B. Gingras decided to open trading posts to better serve the local community.

Throughout the middle of the 1800s, the Red River cart trains would stop at St. Joseph to pick up furs and pemmican to transport to markets in St. Paul, Minnesota. The new commercial activity created by the cart trade drew new Métis families to the area, and by 1849, the population exceeded one-thousand souls.

In 1851, significant flooding at Pembina caused even more population to relocated to St. Joseph, and Father George Belcourt moved his Catholic mission to here. Belcourt soon christened the settlement as “St. Joseph.” For two decades St. Joseph was the center of the Métis culture in the United States – reaching a peak population of about 1,200 people – and a majority of buffalo hunts originated from here.

In 1869, when the Hudson’s Bay Company surrendered their possessions in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the Dominion of Canada, the fur trade economy took a serious hit. Then, in 1870, the US opened a land office and started offering homesteads to white settlers. Soon, the white settlers began to edge the Métis and Ojibwe hunters from their hunting lands and the character of St. Joseph changed dramatically.

By 1877, only a handful of Métis remained, as the white settlers – mostly Scandinavian immigrants – assumed political power and changed the name of the community to Walhalla.

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